Given St Edmund's College Chapel, Cambridge, at Solemn Vespers on the Patronal Feast Day initiating the Chapel's centenary celebrations, 13 November, 2015. (Scripture Reading: Col. 1: 9-14).
It is my great joy, as St Edmund’s College Patron and Visitor, to join you in prayer at this Solemn Vespers initiating celebrations for the centenary of the chapel, unique among contemporary Cambridge college chapels in being the only Catholic foundation.
The building of this chapel, according to the simple yet elegant design of the Spiritan priest, Fr Benedict Williamson, began in 1915 with the laying of the foundation stone by Cardinal Bourne on 5th November, who also blessed and opened it on 16th October the following year. It was, then, whilst the horrors of the Great War raged, that Mass was first celebrated here. No doubt many Masses were offered for the repose of the souls of the fallen, and for peace. In those days of death and darkness, how many received within this sacred space the light needed to keep hope alive? Perhaps it was whilst praying before our Lord, ever present with us in the Blessed Sacrament, no matter the world’s turmoil, that the then Master of the House, Fr Thomas Williams, was inspired to set out from the security of his post to serve as a frontline chaplain.
Tonight we unite our prayers to, and are encouraged by, the prayers of everyone who over the decades has made holy these walls. Prayers of people from the world over: prayers of priests, yes; but after World War II, increasingly those of lay people, single and married, and in latter years, those of other Christian communities too. We think of, and thank God for, all those who here have sought and found forgiveness of their sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. So many who felt here the solace of Mary’s maternal embrace.
I imagine that in the fifty years since St Edmund’s became a graduate college, there has been no shortage of students seeking inspirational light amid their intellectual darkness, and the endurance which the completion of a dissertation or doctoral thesis demands! I suspect, too, that not a few, unsure as to what they really believe, have nonetheless discovered this chapel to be a refuge of strengthening tranquility when they were troubled or distressed.
Of this I am certain: that everyone who passes through the chapel doors, whether or not they realise it, benefits from the friendship and guidance of the one after whom this college is named, and whose feast we keep this evening, St Edmund of Abingdon, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Now, it may seem odd that a Cambridge college should be dedicated to someone more associated with another ancient university, that, sorry, I cannot but mention. I mean, of course…Paris. Oh, yes…and that other place, Oxford. Despite his Oxford pedigree, and though born over 800 years ago, St Edmund nonetheless continues to teach us so much about learning, praying and living.
Learning. Edmund was a fine theologian, a pioneer of the new scholasticism and artful commentator on sacred Scripture too. He revived the study of Greek. He was also a mathematician and philosopher. Roger Bacon says of him: ‘Edmund, the first in my time who read the Elements – of Aristotle – at Oxford.’
In Edmund we find a genuinely Catholic approach to learning. We do not restrict ourselves to a narrow specialisation, rather we set out on an adventure to explore, as best we can, the full wonder of the universe. We delight in truth, wherever it is found. We see not a tension, but harmony, between revealed truth and that which human reason discovers. We are confident that the immensely diverse areas of human knowledge do not splinter our minds. Instead they direct us to the profoundest unity of all that is true. This unity rests in the person of Jesus, through and for whom all things were created and held together (see Colossians 1:15-17, vv immediately following the passage read at Vespers). We meet Jesus in prayer. Therefore our learning cannot be divorced from our praying.
Praying. St Edmund teaches us to integrate our intellectual endeavours and our prayer. First, however, something not to copy: after a night spent in prayer, the exhausted Edmund fell asleep whilst giving his lecture! Well, at least that’s a refreshing change from the students doing the sleeping (though I understand Edmund also used to drop-off when a student too). Definitely worthy of emulation is what St Edmund instructs concerning sincerity in prayer: ‘I would rather repeat five words with my heart,’ he says, ‘than five thousand which my soul does not relish with affection and understanding’. (Advice this homilist should take to heart; and perhaps the non-correlation between the number of words and understanding applies equally to academic papers.) But how may we increase in understanding? A lovely story about St Edmund suggests one way.
While St Edmund was walking through the fields, the child Jesus appeared to him. In memory of this encounter, every night Edmund signed his forehead with the word ‘Jesus’. He encouraged others, encourages us, to do the same. By this simple gesture we open our minds to the presence of Jesus. We pray that they ‘may be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] Will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding’. Wisdom is not amassing factual knowledge. Rather it is an understanding of life as a whole. Wisdom is a way of living.
Living: St Edmund lived for others. He did not limit the fruits of his learning to a closed circle of elites, but gladly dedicated it to the good of all. Similarly, his prayer, though an intimate relationship with Jesus, never shut him off from others. Prayer is personal, though never private property. To be with Jesus in prayer is to be sent out from ourselves, bearing to others the gifts lavished upon us. Edmund desired ardently to shepherd everyone into the marvel of knowing what we have heard tonight: that the Father ‘has transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son’! Our lives must be given over to doing the same.
The dedication of this chapel to St Edmund, and its striking window blessed by my predecessor Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor depicting St Boniface, reminds us that we too are to live as missionary disciples, to use a favourite designation of Pope Francis. Our living is to be a ceaseless proclamation of Gospel joy. Indeed, such commitment to evangelisation is intrinsic to the life of this College, particularly thanks to its two research institutes.
Firstly, the von Hügel Institute. As you know, it is the only Catholic-inspired research institute based in an Oxbridge College. Its founding purpose is to preserve and develop the Roman Catholic heritage of St Edmund’s by addressing contemporary political, social, legal and economic issues from the perspective of Catholic social teaching. It is surely, then, a valuable resource for the evangelisation of culture. Similarly, the Faraday Institute makes its contribution by its promotion of dialogue between religion and science, and the wide dissemination of its research findings. It continues the tradition of Fr George Lemaitre, generally recognised as the father of the Big Bang theory, who undertook some of his key research while resident at St Edmund’s in the 1920’s. Both research institutes meet the mission Pope Francis gives to universities in Evangelii Gaudium: to be: ‘outstanding environments for articulating and developing […] evangelising commitment in an interdisciplinary and integrated way’ (134).
Back to St Edmund. His prayerful learning made fruitful his preaching. His eloquent words illuminate minds, enflame hearts. But, of course, his manner of living most beautifully, gives effective testimony to the Gospel. Filled with spiritual wisdom, he led a life worthy of the Lord and enables others to do the same. He is a man abounding in mercy. His biographer, Matthew Paris (not the Times columnist, I take it) says of Edmund: ‘Compassion was brought up with him from infancy: it caused him to embrace the miseries of others and to share as a partner in every affliction…We cannot adequately represent the immense charity and charisma by which he converted many hearts. He was so active in offering hospitality and in other acts of generosity that whatever was within his means seemed to be at the common disposal of everyone.’ It is said he sold his own books to help needy students, and nursed them himself when they were sick. No doubt his great devotion to contemplating the suffering humanity of the crucified Son of God, mercy made flesh, motivated Edmund’s merciful life. I pray that during the Year of Mercy, this chapel can be a place where those who enter it may be caressed by divine mercy, and so become merciful like the Father. This would indeed be a most fitting celebration of its centenary.
Fr Alban, Dean of the Chapel, thank you for your truly valuable ministry. Your chaplaincy, this chapel, is not accidental to college life. It is essential, of the essence of this college, especially when the Holy Eucharist is celebrated here. Hence I fervently pray that the chapel’s exciting centenary project will be extremely successful. May the prayers of its patron continue to help us to learn, to pray and to live as merciful, missionary disciples. May we be one with Edmund in ‘giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light’.
St Edmund of Abingdon: Pray for us.